By Matt Bradshaw —
Men’s basketball (4-2) bounced back from consecutive losses at the NIT Tip-off with a huge upset victory. Louisville downed No. 9 Michigan State (5-2) in an electrifying overtime dog fight at the KFC Yum! Center.
The Cardinals started strong and the Spartans fought back to make it a close game in both halves. Overtime found the opposing sides struggling for the win back-and-forth. In the end, U of L capitalized on key mistakes from its opponent, converted clutch free throws and put together a kinetic team performance for the 82-78 win.
Following tough defeats from No. 5 Tennessee and Marquette, the significance of this win cannot be overstated. Louisville’s difficult schedule has challenges still to come, so a dub in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge against a highly ranked squad bodes good chances for an NCAA tournament appearance.
Even more so, the stressful and uplifting night represents the first major milestone in the Chris Mack era. To beat a bonafide program during primetime in Michigan State, along with certified and storied head coach Tom Izzo, instantly places U of L’s program in the national spotlight. This is not to mention the representation of recovery from crippling NCAA sanctions in the past.
Perhaps the upset is also recompense for State stunning men’s soccer in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Whatever the case, Louisville men’s basketball found the talent and steadiness to prove they could finish in overtime against a legitimate program.
Head coach Mack’s team shot out the gates in the first half, besting the other team by drawing fouls and making shots. With their largest deficit at 12 points, Izzo finally got his team firing back with improved shooting until the score read 38-32 at halftime.
U of L began the second half much like the first and owned a 10-point lead right away. Back-and-forth play ensued as MSU fought back and kept the Yum! Center nervous.
It looked like the ninth-ranked Spartans might win when they took a 62-61 lead with under four minutes to play. The Cardinals found it in themselves to stay calm and make shots, forcing an overtime following a 67-67 tie in regulation.
Junior Ryan McMahon, sophomore Jordan Nwora and graduate student Christen Cunningham became the heroes in OT. McMahon converted must-have clutch free throws, Nwora nailed a go-ahead three-pointer and Cunningham ran the point until Louisville secured their four-point upset.
McMahon notched a career game with 24 points. The guard did so with four three-pointers and twelve free throws. Nwora followed behind with 14 points and nine rebounds, though he took a while to get going with four turnovers in regulation.
When asked how McMahon was so effective, Izzo replied “Because nobody guarded him. His range was unlimited. Give him credit.”
Cunningham ran the floor for 13 points and five assists. Junior Dwayne Sutton played his best in regulation with 13 points and six rebounds
By conclusion of play, Michigan State outshot and outrebounded U of L. The key for the Cards was forced turnovers as they finished with 18 points off 17 turnovers from the visitors.
The Cards started the game with a bang. Junior Steven Enoch nailed a three-pointer and Sutton slammed a fast-break dunk for a five-point lead.
Izzo’s team went to work on Enoch right away and forced the center from the contest with two fouls. They continued the draw-two-fouls trend on graduate student Akoy Agau and took a 8-7 lead.
U of L turned things back around with a 20-7 run. McMahon started the push with a pair of three’s, while the rest of the team kept it going by driving to the lane and drawing fouls.
The Spartans hurt themselves with turnovers and gave the Cards their largest lead of the contest with the score 34-22.
Michigan State, finding a rhythm in the final five minutes, started making shots. Louisville, alternatively, let its opponent back into the contest with poor shot selection.
Following a 10-2 State run to end the half, U of L owned a 38-32 lead at halftime.
“I was surprised,” Izzo said, referring to trailing at the half. “He’s [Mack] got a good team, a lot of people to bring in, some size, he has a little bit of everything.”
Restart mirrored the start of the matchup with the Cards immediately taking control. Sutton drained a three and sophomore Malik Williams put up five straight points to fuel a 48-38 score.
The dog fight ensued as the Spartans continually pushed for the lead and the home team struggled to finish. Michigan State came within one point of the lead before falling back, then surged forward once again to trail by one point.
Izzo’s squad took the lead 62-61, their first edge since 8-7, with a jump shot capping a five-point run.
The teams traded free throws and possessions until overtime was forced with a 67-67 draw.
In their second straight overtime game, Mack’s team provided Card Nation with the one of the best feel-good wins for athletics in a long time.
At one point, MSU gained the lead and again looked like they could pull off the comeback win. McMahon led the way with some clutch free throws and, with the help of key offense from his teammates, Louisville won 82-78.
Men’s basketball travels to face Seton Hall on Saturday, Dec. 1 at noon.
You can follow the Louisville Cardinal on Twitter @thecardsports.
Photos by Taris Smith and Karen Nguyen / The Louisville Cardinal